A trip down memory lane with Kenyan great Avtar Singh Sohal

Avtar Singh Sohal captained Kenya between 1962 and 1972. Debayan Sen/ESPN

A global event like the World League Final brings together the best players in the world, members of the media and thousands of fans in droves every match day, and that has been in evidence in Bhubaneswar this time around as well.

However, Avtar Singh Sohal isn't just another hockey fan.

Sohal, 79, is a four-time Olympian in the sport for Kenya, and oversaw their best days in global hockey as captain between 1962 and 1972. When he retired from hockey after the 1972 Munich Olympics, he had the record for most international caps (167) for a hockey player of either gender, and his 18-year-long career remains the second-longest ever, surpassed by Canada's Satinder Paul Bubli Chohan only in the 1990s.

"My parents came to Kenya in the 1930s and I was born in Nairobi. I went to school in Kenya, the Duke of Gloucester School [now called the Jamhuri High] and then I joined the Sikh Union, a club famous for its hockey," says Sohal, who now travels to international events to "catch up with old friends". Before long, Sohal would find himself making his Kenya debut in 1957 against South Africa, and then it took two years for him to become a permanent member of the team. "We played a tournament of four teams -- Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Zanzibar [both merged to form Tanzania later] -- at the Lugogo Stadium in Kampala in 1959, and that's where I established myself. I was taken to the Rome Olympics as a full-back in 1960, and two years later I was one of the youngest captains."

Sohal was one of the finest exponents of hits from penalty corners -- the drag-flick in vogue now was still about two decades away from being discovered -- and former International Hockey Federation (FIH) president Leandro Negre, who faced Sohal as Spain's goalkeeper during the 1968 Olympics, says that every penalty corner for Kenya in those days would invariably lead to goals.

Kenya were just a point short of qualifying for the semi-finals of the 1964 Olympics and had a good run in 1968, too, but it is the memorable clashes with the top Asian teams of that era that stand out as fond memories for Sohal. "In 1964, we played India in Jabalpur and we scored three goals inside the first half. That same team went on to win gold in Tokyo," says Sohal. "Pakistan came to Kenya in the early part of 1960 and we beat them 3-1, and then the same team went and won gold in Rome. But the best match I ever played was at the 1971 World Cup, and the game we played against India, where we scored first. They equalised and we lost only after extra time. That was a fantastic memory for Kenyan hockey."

Sohal says there were seven or eight players from Sikh Union in that 1971 team at the first World Cup in Barcelona, one where they beat Germany -- gold medallists at the Olympics the following year -- twice before the semi-finals. The extra-time defeat to India came in the bronze-medal playoff, and Kenyan hockey would go on a steady decline soon after, especially after boycotting the Olympics in both 1976 and 1980. Sohal returned as head coach for the team in 1984, but that and 1988 were to be their last appearances at the Olympics, with their only other World Cup appearance coming in 1973.

Sohal believes the reason for Kenya's decline was much simpler, though. "We got independence in 1963, and people were given five years to decide between Kenyan citizenship and that of the United Kingdom," he says. "Our best players went to Canada, the UK and eventually settled there, with many of them going on to play for their national teams."

Sohal, who rates former India captain Prithipal Singh as the toughest opponent he ever came across, has coached, umpired and even held administrative positions in the sport since his playing days, but wants to get back to coaching after raising enough funds to build an artificial surface at his home club. A frequent traveller to international events, he might skip next year's Asian Games in Jakarta, but plans to come back to Bhubaneswar to watch the World Cup next year, where South Africa will be the lone representatives from his continent.

"We have one [artificial pitch] in Nairobi, but I want to build one for the Sikh Union," he says. "We have a record of supplying 27 Olympians to Kenya, and that legacy must go on. Once the pitch is built, I will get back to coaching."